India seeks localised ceasefire to evacuate its nationals
New Delhi: India on Friday sought a localised ceasefire between Russian and Ukrainian troops in eastern Ukraine to facilitate evacuation of Indian citizens trapped in conflict zones, and insisted it is yet to see the decision by the warring sides to create safe corridors for the exit of civilians materialise.
Around 20,000 Indian nationals have so far crossed the borders of war-torn Ukraine to safety, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) said, as reports emerged about a Delhi student getting shot multiple times but miraculously surviving the assault.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, meanwhile, chaired yet another meeting to review the unfolding situation in Ukraine amid the ongoing exercise to evacuate Indian nationals, mostly students, from the country battling a Russian invasion.
External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar, Union minister Piyush Goyal, and National Security Adviser Ajit Doval were among those who attended the meeting.
Arindam Bagchi, the spokesperson for the MEA, said around 300 Indians are stranded in Kharkiv and 700 in Sumy, where fierce fighting is on. Some Indian nationals out of the over 900 in Pisochyn, a Kharkiv suburb, were being taken out from there in five buses.
He told a media briefing that India is primarily focusing on evacuating its nationals from conflict zones in eastern Ukraine including Kharkiv and Sumy, and that the total number of Indians still stuck in the battle-scarred nation is roughly in the range of 2,000 to 3,000.
When asked about Russian President Vladimir Putin's comments on Thursday that some Indians are being held hostage by the Ukrainian forces, the MEA spokesperson once again rejected the claim, insisting India had no such information or report.
As India's efforts to rescue its citizens gathered further steam, it transpired that Harjot Singh, a student from Delhi's Chhatarpur took four bullets, including one on the chest, as he attempted to flee Ukrainian capital Kyiv.
Recounting the horror of February 27, Singh, who is currently undergoing treatment at a hospital in Kyiv, said, "We were in a cab to Lviv. We were stopped at a barricade and suddenly it was raining bullets. I thought this is the end. I am alive by God's grace."
"I don't know what happened to the people I was with. If they made it or not, I have no clue. I thought I will not make it," Singh, enrolled in a language course at International European University in Kyiv, said over the phone.
Naveen S G, a fourth-year medical student in Kharkiv, was killed in shelling on Tuesday after he ventured out of a bomb shelter to buy food for himself and fellow students who were running out of supplies.
Bagchi said India has also evacuated a Bangladeshi national as part of its mission to bring back the stranded Indians.
He said India is in touch with all parties concerned on the evacuation exercise and sought a "local ceasefire" in the conflict zones to get them out.
The MEA spokesperson said India has not seen any forward movement after it transpired on Thursday that Russia and Ukraine are in agreement about the need to create humanitarian corridors to help civilians safely exit the conflict zones.
"We have not seen anything further to that in terms of implementation of the same on the ground. We are closely and eagerly monitoring that," Bagchi said.
"If that happens, it will certainly help our process. We have been asking for a cessation of hostilities by both sides....local ceasefire or whatever works to get our people out of the conflict zones," he said.
Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky, said after talks between Russia and Ukraine that the two sides had reached an understanding to establish safe corridors for civilians.
Responding to Russian reports that Moscow has arranged for 130 buses for evacuating Indians from eastern Ukrainian cities, Bagchi said they were around 50-60 km away from where the stranded students are.
"They are frankly too far away. We do not see a safe and secure way to reach them. I would appeal and urge the parties concerned to have a local ceasefire at least so that the students can go to the buses," he said.
Bagchi said around 20,000 Indians have left Ukraine's borders since India issued its first travel advisories in mid-February.
He said 15 flights landed in India as part of the evacuation mission during the last 24 hours, bringing back more than 3,000 people, and added 16 more are scheduled over the next 24 hours.
Over 10,300 Indians brought back in 48 flights under evacuation mission 'Operation Ganga' so far, he added.
On whether an IL-76 transport aircraft is being put on standby for evacuation of Indians from the Russian side, Bagchi, without giving a specific reply said, "all are in readiness".
"The core problem is how we get the students from where they are to the buses which are far away," he said.
The government has launched "Operation Ganga" to evacuate its citizens and sent four Union ministers as Prime Minister Narendra Modi's "Special Envoys" to countries neighbouring Ukraine to coordinate the exercise.